On the conflation between pragmata and chrēmata

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Under the scope of the thinkable, chrēmata are the things that exist because of and in human, while pragmata are those things that exist independent from—or in spite of—human. Change or the lack thereof is germane to pragmata, while it is created for chrēmata. Creation occurs through a process of thought, logos, hence there are the logos of created differentiation and the logos of created constancy. The former mode of creation, of poiesis, I name it the logos of diaphoropoiesis while the latter I refer to as the logos of statheropoiesis. Figures of the thinkable follow from the workings of these two kinds of logos.

These rather abstract and elusive notions are not produced here for the sake of duplicating the work already done in my Notes on the Thinkable, but for considering some of their far-reaching ramifications in commonplace activities. In this blog post, an effort is made to examine the conflation between the pragmatic and the chrēmatic in political conduct. For the purpose of being concrete while not disturbing the conscience of anyone, I place under critical examination the case of a thinker I bear deep respect for: Diogenes the Cynic. In particular, I consider his understanding of virtue as it was made manifest in his idiosyncratic brand of cosmopolitanism.

The conception of virtue as an element of the pragmatic

After being exiled from his hometown of Sinope for having defaced the local currency, Diogenes found himself in Athens. When asked of which city-state was he a member, he replied that he was a citizen of the world (cosmopolite). Such a term, apart from striking his fellows as an apparent neologism, was, at least on the face of it, a contradiction of terms, for being a polites (citizen) necessitated the existence of a polis (city). The notion of “cosmopolite” seemed to suggest that the cosmos was in fact a polis where one could be its citizen. This posed a problem, since the cosmos could not be understood as a state. It had no political system, laws, government, religion, an army, city walls etc. The cosmos was perceived as everything that was outside or beyond the confines of the polis/state. It therefore seemed impossible to be a citizen of a city that did not exist.

The Athenians were quite reasonable in their understanding of Diogenes’ bizarre postulate. In that historical-cultural context, the city was not merely considered as an open center of commerce and social activities encompassed by a larger corpus of law, with other levels of authority overriding it. The city-state was an instituted reality. Athens and Sparta were not just two “cities” of the land presently referred to as “Greece”, but two quite distinct worlds, with their own sets of norms, societal organization, family structures, rules governing the conduct of private and public life etc. Against this backdrop, the claim of Diogenes was rather nonsensical.

Yet, the Cynic philosopher was no fool. As we already know from his mode of living and his teachings, he truly believed that one could live in accordance with nature and in that sense, one would become a member of a “rules-based” system that existed prior to human: the cosmos. To complement this claim, Diogenes argued that virtue could only be found in nature. Every human institution, every tradition, norm, law, rite etc. was seen as an impediment to virtue, as a means of alienating human from the ethical truth.

Diogenes clearly identified the source of virtue in the pragmatic. In arguing for cosmopolitanism, he was effectively propounding an ‘anarchist’ theory of virtue ethics, whose inspiration was the cosmos, or more fully, the interpretation and reification, the __ imaginary other of the cosmos. He was ostensibly overcoming instituted realities and was “returning back” to some presumably disregarded purity/superiority of the pragmatic. Laudable as such a venture might have been, Diogenes, or indeed anyone who claims to have discovered a value that stems directly from nature and not human reason and institution, was not really challenging the chrēmata as such, but was rather making a case for an alternative appraisal of what ought to be understood as the cornerstone of the chrēmatic order.

Under the scope of the thinkable, this ethical-political conception of the individual, as a member—a “citizen”—of the cosmos, has both a valid and a false insight:

  • It is correct in acknowledging that all things human have no inherent properties.
  • It is erroneous in bestowing the patina of moral truthfulness on the natural, for virtue per se is a value, a human concept.

Hence, the cosmopolitanism of Diogenes represents a clear-cut case of the conflation between pragmata and chrēmata, of failing to realize that the phantasmagorised exaltation of nature as a source of true value, is in itself a product of human. He thus failed to apply consistently his own appreciation of human creation as being an instituted reality, remaining instead confined to a system of normative propositions that fallaciously placed the pragmatic against the chrēmatic, when in fact these two coexist in the thinkable.

Value as part of the chrēmatic

When it comes to politics and ethics, whatever seems to draw its legitimacy from the cosmic/natural/pragmatic is, at the very best, a plausible and persuasive interpretation of a state of affairs that originates outside human. In being so, it stands as a transfiguration of an impression of the cosmos into the fundament on which an ethical/political opinion is based. It therefore is as much an institution as anything else, litanies to its exteriority to human notwithstanding.

The cosmos makes no normative proposition whatsoever. It is human, via the thinkable, that appreciates things in such a way, venturing to organize the chrēmatic order in a fashion that might seem to resemble, but never replicate, the pragmatic; since there is no pragmatic value to be replicated. Consequently, the allegedly natural ethics of Diogenes are false, in as far as the connection of the cosmos to the “true” ethos are concerned. By the same token, all objects of thought, all theories that purport to predicate value on the natural are merely alluding to a fictitious objective benchmark, to the spectralized other of “nature”.

There are several insights to be drawn from this mode of thinking:

  • Politics are thinkable: the transposition of the cosmos to the realm of human always occurs through interpretation and, by that account, manifests as an element of the chrēmatic. The identification of a cosmic state of affairs with chrēmatic values is just a misrecognition of the case’s constitution.
  • Pragmata and chrēmata differ: nature qua brute matter makes no moral pronouncements. It is in human that something morphs into a value of a sort. It is human who may consider the natural or naturalistic as the virtuous or virtue-like. It is human who shall proceed, through politics, to establish that “natural” as the main chrēmatic structure on which complexes of significations and conceptualizations may be attached to.
  • The regress to a chrēmatic benchmark is potentially infinite: there is no such thing as a “self-evident” normative proposition, not even that which allegedly traces its roots to the cosmic order. The legitimation of a normative statement rests on another chrēmatic value, which itself stands as a component of a richer body of thought that still needs some further idea to be based on etc. The gist of the matter is that a system of ethics and/or politics cannot really have an unquestionable truth as its basis or midpoint and must, therefore, rely on convention, persuasive analytical wit, or sheer coercion in order to find currency among people.
  • Not all cosmopolites are the same: since the notion of “cosmopolitanism” was considered, it must be noted that the cosmopolitanism of Diogenes is the ethics of “naturalism” coupled with a tacit suggestion to disregard institutions. In contradistinction, modern citizens of the world may have other guiding ideals, chrēmatic as these undoubtedly are, be it the global reach of capitalism, the unification of human kind under a single government/authority, or just a desire not to be associated with any particular society or country. Whatever the specifics may be, the cosmos/nature as such can make no polites, for it neither grants rights nor imposes obligations on anyone. To be a cosmopolite, is to be so by convention; perhaps an alternative or unorthodox one, but a convention nonetheless.

All of the above are written by someone who names himself a cosmopolite, in not wishing to be identified with any particular group of people across the world (mine is a vigilance against nationalism); one who finds no inherent value in ethics, law and politics and who therefore, proceeds to consider them in a positivist sense as instituted realities.

I have tried to be eclectic in examining the case of Diogenes, to keep what I perceive to be valid in his theory and to reject what I consider as fallacious. I should nevertheless state that, in my humble opinion, the conflation between pragmata and chrēmata is not peculiar to Diogenes or to Cynicism. It can be discerned in many historical-cultural contexts, with the present era not being an exception.

In arguing for a clear understanding of the distinction between pragmata and chrēmata, I am not downplaying the importance of ethics or politics; I am just demystifying them, withdrawing those elements that can hold a society captive of itself. Therefore, the bottom line of my argument is that there always exists a possibility to think and to do things differently. Whatever is done, it is done by us, both individually and collectively; and, in being thinkable, it can be done otherwise.